Most accounts of the controversy surrounding House Speaker Jim Wright's decision to attend a meeting in Washington between the president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, and the Roman Catholic primate of that country, Miguel Obando y Bravo, are missing the point. The suggestion seems to be that if we "lose" Nicaragua, Wright will be the man responsible.

But nations cannot win at the conference table what they have lost on the battlefield. And a truth that the administration keeps trying to hide is that its war policy -- another term for the contra policy -- has failed. It was so ineptly managed and so poorly conceived that it was finally swallowed up in the miasma of lies and criminality we know as the Irangate affair.

The issue is no longer whether Nicaragua can be regained as an American pawn on the geopolitical chessboard but whether it can be tamed and contained. For either to happen, the United States will have to abandon policies the administration seems determined to follow, apparently so that it can avoid the charge from the extreme right that Nicaragua was "lost" on its watch.

For Nicaragua to be tamed, the United States would have to give vigorous support to the Arias plan. There remains at least an outside chance that Nicaragua's relative isolation both economically and politically will persuade its leaders that the main hope for the country lies in cooperation with its neighbors. If those neighbors in turn set as a price for cooperation a relative democratization of life inside Nicaragua, movement might occur.

The administration's reaction to the Arias plan, however, is to undermine its author by putting a quiet economic squeeze on Costa Rica. It remains on the defensive and allows Ortega to win a propaganda battle in Washington, not because the Nicaraguan leader is so smart but because he is playing in the diplomatic game that counts, and the administration is not.

For Nicaragua to be contained, the administration would have to end its opposition to direct U.S. negotiations with Managua. The current U.S. position on this question is ludicrous.

The United States contends that the Arias plan is deficient because it does not address U.S. security concerns, in particular the number of Cuban and Soviet military advisers in Nicaragua. Yet the United States also refuses to enter into direct negotiations with Nicaragua over this issue. Instead the United States asks to see more progress in the Arias plan before it finally sits down with Nicaragua in a meeting that would also bring to the table the other countries in Central America.

But if Nicaragua is unwilling to meet U.S. security concerns, Washington needs to know this at the beginning of the process, not when all the states in the region may have reached agreement on other issues. If the United States entered into direct negotiations with Managua today and learned that the Nicaraguan and American positions were totally incompatible on bilateral and regional security issues, this knowledge would greatly strengthen the United States in arguing with the other countries in Central America that the Arias plan was a trap. But the United States has unilaterally disarmed itself diplomatically by the dogmatic and foolish position the administration has taken on this issue.

One of the most common political tricks used in Washington by administrations that have failed on substance is to charge violations by others of process or procedure. That is happening with the controversy over "Speaker Diplomacy," but the administration should not be allowed to get away with it. The issue was and remains why the administration is not doing more to support the Arias plan and to defend U.S. security interests by getting relevant commitments from Nicaragua. The writer is editor of Foreign Policy magazine.